Tag: Pinyon Jay

Sandhill Cranes Eat Mice

Sandhill Crane Torrey Utah

A Sandhill Crane in Utah tossing around a mouse

Birding South Central Utah

We just spent a week in southern Utah and, as usual, it was glorious. Our headquarters is the strategically located little town of Torrey, Utah. From there, it’s about 20 minutes to the red rock playland of Capitol Reef National Park (highway construction added some delays this year), 20-40 minutes to two different 10,000 foot mountains, and 20 minutes to some wide-open agricultural fields. That’s a big variety of habitat within striking distance. Despite the arid climate, there are creeks and rivers running here and there all around, great for cooling off and attracting birds. The place is just as amazing at night as it is during the day. Torrey is a designated International Dark Sky Community. Even when the moon is almost full (as it was while we were there), the stars at night are mindblowing. For an L.A. resident, it’s awesome to walk outside at night, look up, and straight-up see the Milky Way. Torrey is certainly off the beaten path, and much of the good stuff is down dirt roads. The beauty and solitude (especially compared to Zion and Bryce Canyon and Arches) more than make up for the extra effort it requires.   

The colors of southern Utah are incredible

I’ve been seeing Sandhill Cranes in the agricultural fields around Torrey since 2013. At first, I thought it was a pretty good find. eBird was in its infancy at the time, and this is not an area with a lot of eBird submissions, so there weren’t many reports at all. Moreover, the map in the Sibley guide we had indicated sightings were rare in southern Utah (the 2nd edition still shows it as rare).  The Nat’l Geographic Field guide indicated they aren’t in southern Utah. The Audubon Field Guide is the same. But they’re all wrong. There are Sandhill Cranes here every summer. At least, they’ve been there every July and August I’ve been there. One year I saw a group of 38 together in a field.

The inaccuracy of the distribution map for Sandhill Crane is not my point, though. The point is: beyond seeing Sandhill Cranes, I never spent much time watching them or learned anything about them. In nine years, I didn’t once pause to wonder what it was that Sandhill Cranes eat. All the Sibley Guide says is “picks food from ground.” If I’d thought about it, I’d have guessed that meant seeds and grains and bugs. That would have been a correct, but incomplete, answer. As we were driving by a field with two Sandhill Cranes, I noticed each one picking up some big, bulky item and tossing it back to the ground, and then pick it up again. I pulled the car over and zoomed in with my camera. Was it cow dung? Nope. This pair of Sandhill Cranes were tossing field mice around. I don’t know why this surprised me so much. Given their size, they must chow down for meals from time to time. And I’ve never blinked when a Great Blue Heron wolfed down a fish or frog, so why wouldn’t a big crane similarly go for big prey? I did some internet research, and Sandhill Cranes are omnivores who will eat snakes, lizards, fish, rodents, and small birds. That’s one of the things about birding – it’s so much more than ticking off a species and moving on. Spend some time watching, or happen by at the right time, and you see cool stuff.

I didn’t see any lifers on the Utah trip this year. It’s the 8th time I’ve been there during July-August, and I’ve pretty much exhausted any likely lifers that are around during that time of year.  But I did see a lot of familiar birds I don’t get a chance to see in Los Angeles. This included Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Black-billed Magpie, Virginia’s Warbler, Northern Goshawk, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Grace’s Warbler, and Cordilleran Flycatcher. A couple of surprises this year were an American Dipper on Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef, a Williamson’s Sapsucker on Moulder Mountain, and a California Gull on a reservoir.

Despite a trio of trips to the high mountains, hoping to stumble into the path of the elusive Dusky Grouse, I struck out again this year. I did manage to visit some beautiful lakes, including the one below that had a lone Spotted Sandpiper. Access was quite easy on Thousand Lake Mountain – the roads are dirt, but well-maintained. Four-wheel drive isn’t necessary to get almost to the top. Boulder Mountain, on the other hand, is rougher going off the paved highway. To my delight, I didn’t see or hear a single ATV this year. They look like fun, but they’re loud, ruin the serene mood, and don’t help with bird-finding.  

At 10,000 feet on Thousand Lake Mountain

I’d love to visit this area during spring or fall migration, just to see what it’s like. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, I don’t imagine it’s much of a flyway. But who knows? Before this year, I would’ve said that Sandhill Cranes don’t eat mice. But they do. Maybe Torrey and Capitol Reef are great spots for migrants.





Birding Wonderland

Comet Neowise Torrey Utah

The comet Neowise over Torrey, Utah

Quiet and Calm in the Interior West

After 125 days of “quarantine”, our family had grown weary. With the COVID case count growing, and stay-at-home measures increasing, we decided it was time to flee Los Angeles. Our destination was a part of south central Utah that the old-timers called Wonderland. My wife’s parents have an amazing house on a wind-swept mesa in Torrey, Utah. It’s a tiny little town, perfectly situated for easy adventures to the red rocks and slot canyons of Capitol Reef National Park or to the alpine lakes and forest of the Aquarius Plateau and Boulder Mountain. The area is a designated International Dark Sky Park, with better views of the Milky Way than I’ve ever seen.  You’re lucky to visit this area any time. These days, it has an added attraction. COVID (like high-speed internet) is just a rumor around here. 

Mountain Bluebird Torrey Utah

Mountain Bluebird, Torrey Mesa, July 2020

We arrived just before sunset on Wednesday.  The wide open space, the quiet, the beauty – it all added up to a calm that I hadn’t felt in weeks. This morning, I took a walk around the mesa. There aren’t a lot of birds right where we’re staying, but the ones that come by are great to see. The first two birds I saw were a Pinyon Jay and a Mountain Bluebird. I added Juniper Titmouse, Lark Sparrows, and Violet-green Swallows. I also found an odd-looking sparrow that I assumed to be a partially leucistic  Black-throated Sparrow 

Black-throated Sparrow Torrey Utah

Black-throated Sparrow

The highlight of the day came this evening – clear views of the comet Neowise zooming through the universe. The photo at the top was taken from our bedroom balcony. I’m so excited that we’ll be spending the next two weeks here in Utah. My target bird is a Northern Goshawk. They can be found on Boulder Mountain, but not reliably. You have to be in the right place at the right time. Crossing my fingers I can finally add it to my life list.

Pinyon Jay Torrey Utah

Pinyon Jay, Torrey Mesa, July 2020